Everyone forgot the snail

After retrospective taxes,here comes the retroactive cartoon

Written by E P Unny | Published:May 12, 2012 1:04 am

After retrospective taxes,here comes the retroactive cartoon

The no-no cartoon was published in Shankar’s Weekly on August 28,1949 and reproduced in many Shankar collections,including one with a Nehru quote as title that will make his party men squirm today — “Don’t spare me Shankar”. The Congress government has pulled out the cartoon and the textbook that carried it. The cartoon features Nehru himself,standing behind a snail that has B.R. Ambedkar sitting on it,amidst a crowd of Indians looking on,in splits. Armed with whips,the two men are prodding the snail,labelled “Constitution”,into action. Maneka Gandhi can object to it — rightly so — for the depiction of cruelty to animals. In the same breath and with no less passion,she will also have to plead for the endangered cartoonists. What’s in it for the rest of the worthies?

Unlike some television anchors’ misreading of it,the archival cartoon doesn’t show Panditji aiming the whip at Dr Ambedkar. A master of gesture,stance and perspective,cartoonist Shankar knew his job and there is no ambiguity on this count. Even the gaze of the laughing crowd is clearly on the crawling creature. The two great men who shaped free India aren’t shown remotely in mutual adversity. Shankar was far too politically savvy to do so. He was very much part of the Nehruvian nationalist politics that drove news then. The sole criticism was on the pace of constitution-making. In this the cartoon reflected no more than the reader’s urge to see quick results in those heady days of nation-building. Perhaps herein lies the clue to the offensive part.

Visual imagery appeals or angers for surrogate subliminal reasons. A good six decades after the cartoon came out,more than the Nehru,Ambedkar caricatures,what must have really hurt our MPs is the ridiculing of the saintly snail,even though they won’t admit it. Truly saintly,because the snail marks the utmost athletic achievement in these inert times in a paralysed capital. How can a cartoonist demand indecent haste in the affairs of state? Forget fast-forward,our leaders cannot even rewind fast enough. Political memories are barely crawling. If the Bharatiya Janata Party cannot recall the Emergency,do not expect the grander and older party to inch all the way back to the days of Gandhi,Nehru,Ambedkar and Shankar,whose cartoon originals were daughter Indira’s gifts to daddy on his birthdays.

The Left is a class by itself. Its ponderous leaders can’t recall last fortnight,which is yet to happen by their Cold War calendar. Even when sworn enemy Mamata Banerjee went wild over a cartoon,many Marxists managed to voice their opposition without uttering the C-word. The refrain was,“Why should a chief minister suppress ‘a certain expression’ of this kind?” The dainty comrades see the cartoon as low art,which is a fact,but it is only as low as its sister-arts — the graffiti and the wall posters that made the Left movement.

While Indian cartooning has mercifully not received any institutional support from politicians of such class,it is a bit strange that even outside this there has been scant backing. The comic art has lingered like a wild growth with a little watering by a newspaper editor or proprietor. Trade bodies to culture managers keep projecting our democratic verve before global audiences but without once putting the best evidentiary doodle into the power point. For over a hundred years the cartoon has existed in India,first anticipating democracy,then auditing it no less than the courts or the election commission. Today,we have blacked out the very pioneer who professionalised the practice here. From the eyes of the school kid.

Our HRD Minister Kapil Sibal surely knows a lot about education but one thing he does not know is the growing interest in the political cartoon even in countries without a formal democracy,and for the comic arts and the graphic novel in academic circles the world over. He has his BlackBerry,let him Google. Meanwhile,the school kids would have already got there.

E.P. Unny is the Chief Political Cartoonist of ‘The Indian Express’. His first printed cartoon was in ‘Shankar’s Weekly’
express@expressindia.com

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